Commentary

‘Ghosts of a Lost Cause’ tells an unfinished story stretching beyond ‘friendliest small town’

Struggle to remove Confederate statue inspired film to be shown Jan. 15 at Murray State. Panel discussion to follow.

January 8, 2024 5:52 am

“Ghosts of a Lost Cause” will be aired Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in Murray.

Murray’s controversial court square Confederate monument “represents a distorted, bloody and awful past that we cannot forget but should not celebrate,” said Murray State University historian Brian Clardy.

The 1917-vintage stone memorial topped by a 5½-foot statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous general, is the subject of a new film, “Ghosts of a Lost Cause” by Sherman Neal II and Gerry Seavo James, which will be shown at Murray State’s Wrather Hall at 6 p.m. CST on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The film will be followed by a panel discussion. Click here to purchase tickets and here for more information.

Read more about the conflict over the statue in The Murray Sentinel’s “Community Divided”

Paid for by a United Daughters of the Confederacy fund-drive, the monument is typical of hundreds of such Confederate memorials — many of them UDC-sponsored. Nearly all of the tributes were erected in public places in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the Jim Crow Era as powerful symbols of white supremacy in the old Confederate States and in border states like Kentucky.

Dozens of memorials have been removed, including a large bronze equestrian statue of Lee, a Virginia native, in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital for most of the Civil War.

Defenders of the Robert E. Lee statue gathered around it in July 2020. The Calloway County Courthouse is on the right. (Photo by Liam Niemeyer)

Many white Americans — not just white Southerners — still revere Lee. “On the one hand, it is true that Lee opposed secession in early 1861, before Virginia seceded. On the other hand, there’s everything else,” wrote The Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell. “For example, despite what old revisionist history or social media memes claim, Lee owned enslaved people. He drove them hard, and he pursued and punished them when they escaped. He separated families to pay off debts and fought in court to prevent them from being freed.”

After Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, killed George Floyd, who was Black, in 2020, protests against racism and police brutality erupted nationwide. (Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter and sent to prison.) Some of the protests included demands that Confederate statues and monuments be taken down.

Neal, then a Murray State football coach, sent a letter to Murray Mayor Bob Rogers asking that the monument be removed because it was “an affront to all residents who support notions of equality and value the American justice system.” Neal added, “The ‘friendliest small town in America’ must remove this symbol of oppression if the purported friendliness extends to its black residents.” (In 2012, USA Today reported that Murray had been declared “friendliest small town in America” in Rand McNally’s  Best of the Road contest.)

Film series captures Black communities, struggles, solidarity across Kentucky

The Murray City Council unanimously resolved to ask the Calloway County Fiscal Court to “expeditiously remove and relocate” the monument. Getting rid of the monument “is the right thing to do, and now is the time,” said Danny Hudspeth, the council’s sole Black member.

The courthouse and lawn are county property, and the all-white fiscal court has been disinclined to remove the monument. Yet Confederate monuments have been removed in other Kentucky cities, including Louisville, Lexington and Owensboro. A statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a Kentucky native, was taken out of the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort.

Besides Neal, the Murray council’s resolution was backed by Murray State University and former Murray State basketball standout Ja Morant who is now a star for the Memphis Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association.

Also in 2020, as protestors gathered to demand the Murray monument’s removal, counter-protestors rallied to defend it. Murray became part of the nationwide dispute over Confederate monuments and symbols, notably the Confederate flag.

Monument supporters claim that removing the Confederate iconography erases history. They say the monuments and the flag represent “heritage, not hate.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center says the “heritage, not hate” claim “ignores the near-universal heritage of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by the millions in the South. It trivializes their pain, their history and their concerns about racism — whether it’s the racism of the past or that of today. And it conceals the true history of the Confederate States of America and the seven decades of Jim Crow segregation and oppression that followed the Reconstruction era.”

Historian Brian Clardy. (Murray State University photo)

Clardy, who will be part of the panel discussion after the film is shown, said the Murray monument “sends a signal to people of color and others ‘you’re not welcome here.’” Many scholars agree about the message of Confederate monuments.

Harvard University historian Annette Gordon-Reed says  removing the monuments is not erasing history. “History will still be taught,” she pointed out. “There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.”

In his 2001 book, “Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War,” historian Charles B. Dew quoted the Confederates themselves on what prompted secession and the creation of the Confederacy.

Davis, the Confederate president, praised slavery as a worthy institution by which “a superior race” had transformed “brutal savages into docile, intelligent and civilized agricultural laborers.”

Dew also quoted from state secession ordinances. Without exception, they said only the formation of a separate Southern nation would save slavery and white supremacy.

In addition, the Confederate constitution explicitly safeguarded slavery and barred the Confederate government from abolishing it.

“Let’s just call Confederate soldiers what they were — traitors,” said Clardy. “They were disloyal to the United States. They shed American blood, and they do not need to be lionized for that.”

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Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Berry Craig, a Carlisle countian, is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of seven books, all on Kentucky history. His latest is "Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy" which the University Press of Kentucky published. He is a freelance journalist, a member of the American Federation of Teachers and a longtime union activist.

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